Why Medieval Fantasy is Not Inherently Conservative (or Inherently Anything Political)
“Oh Fantasy,” says my friend. “It’s inherently conservative.”
This debate flares up from time to time in author interviews, blog posts, and in the pub. (EDIT: Michael Moorcock essay here.)
And it’s true that Fantasy looks conservative (with a small “c”) or even “reactionary” since in its most typical form, it deals with quasi-Medieval European feudal societies in which male characters wield agency through violence, power struggles take place within the matrix of unquestioned hereditary aristocracy, and often hinge on what can best be described as destiny-determinism; “You are the chosen one!”
Responses to this includ,e on the one hand, appeals to the subversive power of any secondary world (since it reminds us that our own political arrangements are contingent on History) and to the sheer range of possible Fantasies, and on the other, conservatives compiling lists of books that reflect their politics.
However, my response to this is usually:
“PAH! WHAT WAS THAT? I CAN’T HEAR YOU OVER THE CLASH OF STEEL AND THE ROAR OF DRAGONS! OMG THAT PRINCESS NEEDS RESCUING! EXCUSE ME I MUST FETCH MY FATHER’S SWORD FROM THE TOWER OF DESOLATION!“
You see, bringing politics into genre raises my hackles.
As soon as you start debating the political stance of a genre, you are implying that a genre should have a stance, that fiction should be measured by how it serves particular agendas. From there, you get a sense that there exist novels that people ought to read.
As somebody who’s often enjoyed a blessed escape into fiction during adverse circumstances — e.g. while huddled on the dirty floor of commuter train, wedged between a bulkhead and a toilet door — I can tell you that people ought to read the books they enjoy. No author has a right to be read because nobody has a right to our precious reading time.
The whole conversation about genre and politics conflates the apparatus of make-believe with message.
Escapist fiction helps the reader escape (the clue is in the name). Even supposing a book embodies a particular politics — conservative or Marxist, say — the reader experiences that first and foremost as part of the pleasant dislocation from the modern world, even if the author intended otherwise.
It should not also not surprise us when Fantasy reflects the demographic and culture of the reader. There’s nothing sinister about this. It’s just that making the escapist leap is easier if one foot is on solid ground. It’s also true that the archetypes that intrigue us are often our own and that these are possibly the most worthy of exploration. People quite rightly want to read books that help them make sense of their own lives. (They can read other books to broaden their mind as well.)
A bit like Crom, Genre provides a writer with a setting and some story building blocks — tropes — then walks away. The author is left to reinvent, deconstruct, problematize, satirize, counter-read… Yes, Fantasy often depicts a particular political ideology. However, there’s nothing forcing the author to be nice about it. A good example is Michael J Sullivan’s Ryria series which revels in a feudal setting with knights and kings and princesses and wizards, but meanwhile serves up a dose of class war and popular revolution.
Sullivan’s books contain good people who are part of the feudal structure and take their duties seriously, which leads me to my final point:
Though the real world has its Dark Lords and Evils that Must Be Revealed, mainstream politics are about how we deal with the tragically irresolvable conflicts inherent in the human condition. You cannot, for example, easily resolve the conflict between (a) the rights of the individual, and (b) the common good. You can only pick balance points and accept the resulting costs.
If we catch an author setting up a mainstream political viewpoint as a straw man stand-in for the Dark Lord, we smile and go along with the game. However, we stop taking the book seriously because that’s just not how things work. It follows that to be effective, a book that does have a political axe to grind must portray both sides of the argument fairly enough that we can draw our own conclusions, or at least realize that there is a debate.
Of all the genres, Fantasy must be the worst possible channel for the politically minded author. They simply can’t be heard over that clash of steel and the roar of dragons…
M Harold Page (www.mharoldpage.com) is a Scottish-based writer and swordsman. Enter the Black Gate competition to win one of his books.
I think Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy wanted to make some political and religious points, or political points about religion, and the books suffered as a result. Certainly I found the last two disappointing after the first one.
Back to what fantasy does well: often we see characters struggling to Do The Right Thing in their given political/religious/economic situations. A bit like reading Victorian adventure stories…
I find folks who insist art must serve some sort of agenda tedious. When story shorted to make a point, no matter how laudable, the proceedings are usually dull.
“As soon as you start debating the political stance of a genre, you are implying that a genre should have a stance, that fiction should be measured by how it serves particular agendas.”
Right on. This is especially galling when dealing with fantasy fiction which, at it’s best and most primal, strips away the tediously regimented modern world to revel in the raw honesty of myth.
It’s not about the ways we are forced to arrange our public lives so that we can function as a society– it’s about how we contrive to see our most overpowering dreams and hopes and fears in the private context of our hearts.
I’m fairly new to the SF&F scene. I’ve been poking around SF&F websites, blogs, and podcasts for a couple of years now.
But, personally, I’ve never really felt (and still don’t) like I am part of the SF&F community, generally. And this is mainly because I perceive (this is my own biased perspective) a fairly adamant political nature about this community that I don’t really relate to.
So I’m pleasantly surprised and pleased to read a post like this one.
I’m not really criticizing the political nature of the genre community–I’m just not there.
The need for some to politicize everything is really pathetic and is particularly obnoxious in regards to smug critiques of older works in light of this historical blip known as post-modern Western culture. Fiction, at least for rational people, extends beyond Donkeys vs Elephants.
Reminds me of the story about a patient whose psychiatrist showed him the Rorschach blots and concluded he was obsessed with sex — and he protested that the psychiatrist had showed him all the dirty pictures.
Spot on! Great post!
I think any story is going to express the values of the writer, intentionally or not. So it will have a ‘message’ regardless….sorry, I’ll have to get back to you. Our top operative, Athena – yes, yes, a woman, but also a genetically enhanced super-soldier – wants me to transmit a blue-print for the ventilation system on Luna III asap. It’ll only take a minute. Now where was I? Yes, yes. Whether the values/message expressed through the story and the characters in it are conservative or not – well, that’s really a matter of context, isn’t it? Is Epic Fantasy more conservative (in terms of gender stereotyping and sexual mores) than SF? In my opinion…Goddammit! Athena! You’re exceeding mission protocols again! Athena? Athena? Great. She loves him, so we know she’s motivated, but does she have to kill every bloody thing that crosses her path? Is that her idea of a rescue mission? A massacre? And what’s a poor (if near omnipotent) AI to do?
@aonghus Fallon – ROFL
Yes, we all write within our world view. However the more it diverges from reality, the less seriously readers take it.
Regarding gender stereotyping. Violence isn’t the only agency. The roles in Medieval Fantasy in particular are often going to be the traditional ones. How the characters work within these, or are constricted by them, however, is what counts.
A lot of the louder politics is to do with the mechanics of self-policing Fandom at conventions etc. “Misogyny”, for example, suddenly becomes a pressing and personal issue when an incident of harassment or creepiness can spoil your weekend.
Much of the political blogging about books reflects how college graduates have been taught they should relate to books.
Otherwise, political blog posts reflect the fact that people only bother to blog about stuff when they feel strongly about. This can make it seem everybody is fierce all the time.
My experience of online Fandom is that I count a wide variety of people as friends. The Internet is a great humaniser.
In a lot of sci fi and fantasy, violence is portrayed as the solver of problems. This is like a lot of mainstream popular fiction.
But not all sci fi and fantasy follows this path.
Dead of Winter by Lee Collins and Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence are two quite different takes on how violence affects people.
Tolkien fought in the trenches of WW1, and Lord of the Rings does not shy away from mass violence, but in the end the battle is a moral won, and victory is obtained by determination and strength of purpose, with pity being a crucial factor right at the end.
And all these things exist in the real world.
It’s also interesting to contrast the Hornblower books with the Sharpe series re differing value systems. The Hornblower books extol the virtues of the thinker over the man of action. Hornblower is brave when he has to be, but we respect him primarily for his quiet intelligence, whereas Sharpe is very much a man’s man.
Again, both are realistic (though Sharpe is preternaturally lucky, this is can be written off as Survivor Bias).
I’m honestly not buying your argument. While most readers probably don’t read much further into a text than the escapism level, not all readers are content with merely “the clash of steel and the roar of dragons.”
Is medieval fantasy inherently conservative? That depends on the politics being discussed. Are we talking about the donkey and the elephant or that more nebulous and ever present politics? Humans are political animals. When a writer creates a work of fiction, his or her view of the world is reflected in the text. And when a reader reads that text, his or her view of the world is affirmed, challenged, troubled, etc.
For me, a good portion of the enjoyment I get from a work of fiction is to figure out the themes of a text whether by Faulkner, Lee, Atwood, Tolkien, Martin, Williams, etc.
I think Fantasy is apolitical not because you can’t put in political content, but because doing so is *ineffective*. Readers either treat it as part of the escapist dislocation or else – like you – make a parlor game of it.
However, I do agree that one’s politics can determine the focus of the authorial camera and that this can challenge or trouble the reader’s world view.
Even so, the reader response is not guaranteed to be that the author wishes. In the real world, we all know what Hiroshima looked like but our responses range from: “Heck, losing a nuclear war is bad, better glass the other guy first” to outright pacifism.
The main established political ideologies all face the same realities and yet offer different answers.
My knee-jerk reaction is to say that all epic fantasy is political, because it’s the intrigue, assassination, and struggle to gain (or keep) the throne that makes so much of it interesting.
On a more serious note, while it’s true that the values of an author will influence the work, the Message shouldn’t be the point of the work. Fiction’s first and foremost purpose is to tell an interesting story about characters for whom we care. As soon as the author starts preaching, I lose interest, even if I agree with the position being taken. (Sometimes especially if I agree with the position being taken.)
There are some highly regarded writers whose works I won’t read because their blogs and public statements are so political. They tend to say, “I don’t like X” or “I’m offended by Y”. Therefore “I wrote Z to say Something Important about the issue.”
What comes across is that the author’s main purpose isn’t to entertain me but to convert me to a particular point of view. That immediately gets my hackles up.
The truly good authors will tell a story and get their point across without the preaching.
Part of the reason the argument that epic fantasy is inherently conservative is so obnoxious has to do with the charged nature of the term ‘conservative;’ could a more polarizing word be chosen? Yes, the word has multiple meanings, but at this point it is nearly synonymous with right-wing politics.
This reminds me of an infuriating statement in Stephen King’s otherwise excellent Danse Macabre, where he says that the horror genre is as conservative as “a Republican in a three-piece suit.” Although I’m not sure if King would have written that if Danse Macabre was released after the paradigm-shifting emergence of Clive Barker and the subversive ‘splatterpunk’ movement.
(Added link to “Starship Stormtroopers” by Micheal Moorcock)
It’s interesting to note that many of the writers who have won the Libertarian Futurist Science Fiction Award (http://lfs.org/awards.shtml)really don’t like libertarianism.
This is an interesting article, but I’m not sure what your argument is. Are you arguing that fantasy isn’t inherently conservative, or are you arguing that it cannot be political at all? I’d agree with the first point, but it seems to me too many writers have written too many great fantasies with political themes for the second argument to hold up (a few offhand, and just restricting myself to ‘medieval’ fantasy: Morris, Eddison, Delany, Guy Gavriel Kay, arguably Steph Swainston depending on what you mean by ‘medieval’). Certainly I can’t agree that fantasy’s necessarily escapist, at least as ‘escapist’ is normally defined. It can be. But it isn’t necessarily.
I also have to say that I think it’s not necessarily the case that a reader will experiences politics in a fantasy story “as part of the pleasant dislocation from the modern world.” Sometimes it’s not pleasant — sometimes, for better or worse, a work’s political content acts as a barrier to a given reader. If you’re reading a book whose basic assumptions about how the world works are different from your own, the response may be immediate and unavoidable; particularly if the book’s idea of ‘how the world works’ involves some prejudice against you as a reader.
I mean, what you say in the comments about “a parlor game” isn’t how people who see politics in a text are necessarily approaching the work. At least, it’s not how I read. Usually an author’s world-view is fairly obvious, and, as you say, determines the focus of the camera. It is true that one can find political ideals at a level below the surface of a text — but that’s not a parlor game either, since as a reader you’re probing deeper into the text. That’s an attempt to understand what it is you’re experiencing and how that experience is produced, which has nothing about it of the trivia implied by the phrase “parlor game.”
Ultimately, I don’t see how a work can escape some kind of political reading. Most readers may not opt for that sort of reading. But it’s always a possibility. Take the clash-of-steel paragraph you cited as your reaction. Right off you’ve got a princess that needs rescuing and a father’s sword, implying some kind of patriarchal archetypes — so you’re either gonna be playing into those archetypes without knowing it, or else playing *against* them by subverting them. Either way, that’s a political stance. It may not be the important thing about the story, which I guess is what you’re getting at. But it’ll be there.
Readers are going to read a text in the way that’s natural to them. Sometimes, that produces a politicised reading that may not be what the author intended. I’d agree that it’s a mistake to treat that reading as ‘righter’ than other readings. But it’s not necessarily a mistaken reading in its own right.
(Thoughtful and thought provoking response – thanks!)
I think we’re saying the same thing.
If the writer focuses on particular realistically depicted issues to make a point, the reader may draw their own conclusions.
If the writer cheats or preaches or sets up a crass allegory to make a political point, then the reader is not taken in, and either amused or thrown from the novel.
However, the reader *may* also find it rewarding to work out what the author’s political leanings. (I called this a “parlor game” flippantly. However I am not personally enthusiastic about experiencing our genre(s) with any sort of intellectual detachment.)
In each of these cases, the best the author can hope for is to make a reader *think* about particular issues. I suppose in that sense – yes – Fantasy is political. However it’s much less potentially effective than contemporary fiction.
[…] fantasy? On Wednesday, Black Gate columnist M. Harold Page tackled the question, with his article Why Medieval Fantasy is Not Inherently Conservative (or Inherently Anything Political). I tried to think of some examples, but I’m not sure the zombie apocalypse can count as a […]
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[…] In January, both M. Harold Page and I wrote posts about politics in fantasy literature. While we came at the topic from different points, I think we narrowed in on the same conclusion. I quote from Page’s post: […]
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